Is China the Key to Bringing Stability to the Korean Peninsula?

By Tyler Jiang, Blogger for East Asian Affairs

On April 15, 2017, North Korea celebrated the 105th birthday anniversary of its founder, Kim Il-Sung. The celebratory military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, featured prototypes or mock-ups, of a submarine launched ballistic missile and intercontinental ballistic missile, reflecting the nation’s progress towards its goal of possessing nuclear weapons.[1] Over the past few years, the United States has attempted to dissuade North Korea from pursuing the nuclear path, as well as support its ally, South Korea, but these efforts have yielded few results. Recently though, the U.S. seems to be stoking the flames by falsely stating that the U.S.S. Carl Vinson carrier group was steaming toward the Korean Peninsula.[2] So, what could possibly reel in North Korea?                  

China is North Korea’s sole ally. Since intervening on behalf of North Korea during the Korean War, China has been a staunch supporter of the Communist North Korean government. In the past, China has done little to pressure North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its provocative missile tests, but that may soon change. In recent years, North Korea’s increasingly hawkish actions and rhetoric are giving the Chinese a headache. Beijing’s growing economic interdependence on the United States and increasingly frequent diplomatic spats with North Korea, (in February, Pyongyang claimed that China was “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”) is leading some within China’s ruling elite to reconsider their stance on Kim Jong-Un’s regime.[3]

In an interview with ABC, National Security Advisor Lt. General McMaster said that the United States and China have come to an agreement that the current situation in the Korean Peninsula “could not continue.”[4] These comments come against the backdrop of a failed North Korean missile test that took place hours before United States Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea.[5] China’s cooperation with the United States could signal a possible change in policy by the Chinese ruling party that may levy additional pressure on North Korea, stripping the country of its only friend.

Beijing’s policy shift by the Chinese isn’t as sudden as it seems. In the past year or so, China has become increasingly wary of North Korea’s provocative actions and has taken measures to punish the regime. Earlier this year, China suspended coal imports from North Korea for the remainder of 2017.[6] This comes as a blow to the Kim Jong-Un regime as coal shipments to China account for up to 40% of North Korea’s annual exports.[7]

Should China truly begin to work in tandem with the United States and the United Nations to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula, this could signal a turn for the better.

It is possible that China is beginning to see North Korea as a liability. An overwhelming number of Chinese citizens in Beijing, interviewed by the author, view North Korea as a dangerous country that could harm China and its interests. It is possible that the Chinese government is slowly coming around to this viewpoint. But U.S. policy makers also need to recognize that China needs North Korea as well. Fearful of being surrounded by the U.S. and its allies, China views North Korea as a buffer between itself and South Korea, where the United States posts almost 30,000 personnel. Should North Korea collapse, then the United States will be right up against China’s northern borders. A rapid collapse of the Kim regime would also lead to a refugee crisis that would spill into China.[8]

Before Chine will levy any true pressure on North Korea, the U.S. government must address China’s concerns. With China backing U.N. and U.S. policy on North Korea, there is a possibility of a peaceful resolution, especially since China has had, and still does, the closest relationship with the reclusive country. Though it is uncertain if North Korea will bend to international pressure, with the Chinese willingly working with the United States and the international community to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions the chances of lasting change improve greatly.  

Tyler Jiang is a Junior at Rowan University studying International Studies and History.


[1] James Pearson and Sue-Lin Wong, “North Korea displays apparently new missiles as U.S. carrier group approaches,” Reuters, (April 15, 2017).

[2] Ryan Browne and Brad Lendon, “US aircraft carrier-led strike group headed toward Korean Peninsula,” CNN, (April 9, 2017).

[3] Hemant Adlakha, “China’s North Korea Debate,” The Diplomat, (March 25, 2017).

[4] BBC, “North Korea nuclear: US ‘working with china’ on response,” BBC, (April 17, 2017).

[5] John Sudworth, “North Korea’s missile test: The view from Pyongyang,” BBC, (April 17/2017).

[6] Choe Sang-Hun, “China Suspends All Coal Imports from North Korea,” New York Times, (February 18, 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, (February 8, 2016).